rolling the dice

One of the most popular franchises of recent times is finally getting a new main entry, after a decade in semi-hibernation. Made by DICE, it promises to be filled with action, Imperial walkers, and the classic heroes-versus-villains gameplay Battlefront came to be known for. But perhaps the main issue with it is the developers themselves.

DICE hasn’t done much to build a reputation lately. Actually, no, they have…the resulting reputation just isn’t a great one. They’ve gone from once being considered a leading developer to little more than a shill for EA in the decade since acquisition.

As recently as five years ago, DICE stood in stark opposition to Activision, a welcome antithesis to the Microtransation Throne and the emperor seated on its gold-coin-stuffed cushion. A senior producer went as far as to go on record and state unambiguously that DICE would never charge for map packs for its flagship Battlefield franchise. But like any election promise, it turned out to be a hollow one. A year and a half later, Battlefield 3 launched, and was eventually expanded with five map packs priced at $15 each. There aren’t many things that can push me to take a principled stand, but a backpedal as anti-consumer as this was one of them. I never purchased any of BF3‘s released expansions, though I was gullible enough to throw down for the Limited Edition, getting the first map pack for free(ish).

I didn’t dislike the game; on the contrary, I played it quite a bit, particularly with friends. It was the most fun I’d had since Bad Company 2, into which I sank a similar amount of time. The Frostbite engine was easily the biggest selling point of the game for me, and larger-scale vehicle combat just put icing on the cake.

But DICE tainted the dessert with Battlelog. Taking the age-old process of finding a new server between games and loading in, and adding the extra complication of having the leave the game to do so (not to mention having to install and continually update a web browser plugin with its own problems), and also losing the ability to do things like tweak game settings and player loadouts between games. The added steps required to do this in BF3 never ceased to annoy me, as much as I enjoyed the game itself.

With the release of Battlefield 4, focii seemed to shift considerably. Less attention was given to the widespread terrain and building destruction featured in BC2 and BF3, and more to “Levolution“, large-scale semi-scripted events that could be triggered by players, which would typically result in major changes to the landscape of a given map. Bridges could be blown, mansions could be leveled and construction crane brought crashing down into skyscrapers and city streets. While this added an extra level of awe to the game, the prevalence of smaller destruction events, like blowing holes through walls or ceilings, seemed to wane. On top of that, BF4 added a plethora of new weapons, accessories, and the ability to counter the previously one-hit-kill melee execution, and of course new maps. But it was very much the sort of thing that would have been an expansion, or at least a major patch, just five years earlier. As such, I didn’t purchase it, because I viewed it as a patch with a $60 price tag, and I wasn’t willing to pay it. It didn’t help that the game had serious technical problems, such as an extremely low tick rate, which only contributed to major difficulties landing hits on enemy players.

Then, DICE was bit by the heist bug. Spurred by the success of games like Payday 2, they decided to trade the military fatigues for a set of blues and make a cops-and-robbers game, calling it Battlefield Hardline. Once again, it felt like something a developer might have added as a new game mode via expansion pack, were it released several years earlier, and so far it has been perceived even by its fans and supporters as little more than a reskin, and has yet to surpass its predecessor in player base. Most damning for me personally is the lack of playtime value: I’ve played just 10 hours of Hardline thus far, and already I feel finished. The game just doesn’t feel as varied or deep as BF3. I feel no motivation to continue.

The decline of DICE, seen through the lens of review scores.

Now the record is preparing itself for another spin on the turntable, with the highly-teased development of Battlefront. Many, like Jim Sterling, are realizing how burned they’ve been over the years by developers like DICE. He hears they’re developing a new game and immediately worries about what new ways they will come up with to exploit customers. Not that it’s his fault–DICE has done this to themselves. Or perhaps it’s more accurate (and less scathing) to say that EA did this to them. Either way, it’s a sad tale to recount for someone who clearly remembers the days when they endlessly bashed Call of Duty‘s DLC model and broken game mechanics.

The worst part: So far, the fears appear to be well-founded. The list of features thus far announced for Battlefront is lacking, to say the least, in comparison to its immediate predecessor. Already people are listing reasons not to buy the game (or at least preorder it), almost all of them making the same analogy, and ones that don’t instead focus on the fact that DLC has already been announced for the game. If DICE isn’t paying attention to all the cynics they’ve made with their development practices over the past ten years, this game will be a barely-remembered one…or it will be etched in granite slabs for generations to come, a cautionary tale of how to ruin one’s legacy in a most efficient manner.

And if they are paying attention and plan to make more huge reveals before launch, I welcome it. One rarely wants to be proven wrong, but this is a subject in which I would be happy to.

some assembly required

Just when I think I’ve seen the complete progression of a particular branch of gaming evolution, another step appears just to surprise me. As if the industry hadn’t already been overly focused on DLC, in the past few years they seem determined to take it to its logical conclusion, stepping even beyond the sad reality we’ve grown accustomed to.

Earlier this year, Warner Bros Interactive went back on their plans to provide DLC support for Arkham Origins on Wii U and canned all story DLC that had previously been planned. Apparently feeling screwing over the maligned Wii U was not enough, they decided to shaft their other customers in a different way: bugs and performance issues that had been prevalent in Arkham Origins would be ignored in favor of the aforementioned story DLC. Not only is WB comfortable with releasing an incomplete game, they’re clearly very okay with leaving it that way. At least Bethesda (eventually) patches its games.

In another part of the realm, Ubisoft’s reputation as a top independent has been slipping rather quickly of late. With Rainbow Six: Patriots languishing before being leaked (and then cancelled), and Siege not even in alpha, it’s now been six years since the franchise last showed a major entry. Meanwhile, the Splinter Cell games–once a hallmark of stealth tactical action–have slowly been corrupted, with Blacklist being a fairly boilerplate shooter game in which stealth is an afterthought. The Division has looked promising, but its release remains nebulous, and in fact this is mostly irrelevant after issues with Ubisoft’s other major release: Watch Dogs. A very ambitious title, early trailers show a gorgeously detailed, living world for the player to explore; but actual gameplay videos are considerably less impressive. More damning was when modders found a way to restore the game to its previous level of graphical quality, which didn’t stop Ubisoft reps from denying that such a downgrade had ever occurred. In video reviews, both TotalBiscuit and birgirpall have noted glaring issues with the game (to be fair, birgirpall’s whole draw basically revolves around the “I broke <insert game>” schtick). Ubisoft isn’t letting such trivialities stall their plans, however, and rolled out the first piece of Watch Dogs DLC just ten days after the game itself was released.

Even smaller developers are feeling the fever. Until recently, From Software held the (publicly stated) belief that games should be released as whole products and had denied any plans to release DLC for their games. As of two weeks ago, that position radically reversed, with not just DLC, but a DLC trilogy announced for Dark Souls II. This could easily have been marketed as a form of episodic content, but these days “DLC” is the buzzword, so I guess that worked just as well for them, except that “DLC” is increasingly carrying a negative connotation among gamers, who often feel defrauded or let down by such content.

No list of gaming sins would be complete without two-time national champion EA included. At the height of the anti-Call of Duty movement, DICE boldly declared that they would “never charge for Battlefield map packs“. While the DLC released for Battlefield 3 was certainly more than just maps, it still left a bitter taste in my mouth to pay $15 a pop for each of them. To date I have not purchased a single one; the two I do have were only acquired because they were given out as freebies. For the same reason, I chose not to throw my money at Battlefield 4, which was itself little more than a major patch for Battlefield 3. Nevertheless, they managed to thoroughly break the game, and eight months later EA and DICE are still cleaning up the mess. Even after this, and after stating as recently as last winter that Battlefield would never be an annual franchise, DICE and Visceral Games are preparing for the release of Battlefield: Hardline, which is regarded as little more than DLC packaged and marketed as a separate product.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that DLC is taking priority over actual products. If developers at least tried to steer closer to episodic content, it might be understandable. But this is a different trend, one I can’t see ending well for gaming in general. It seems like it’s up to the hyperconservatives to hold the line on this one…which is an odd feeling for a liberal.

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Origin is the hot topic of the day, as is Battlefield 3.  The consumer whore I am, I decided I couldn’t wait to nab a copy of BF3 to play on launch day, but I’m wary of Origin (for obvious reasons).  I’ve read statements from EA claiming that Origin would not be required for any of their games to run, which apparently have all been deleted from the internet–either that, or my hat isn’t working anymore, because apparently Origin is and will be required for (virtually) every game to run, including Battlefield 3.  Oh well, I figured.  I purchased it on Impulse in an attempt to get around this issue.

Not only did it not work, it backfired like a CIA operation.  After a four-hour, 13GB download (yeah, my internet‘s not great), I attempted to run BF3 through Impulse and got…a game key.  That was it.  A small window in the top center of my screen showing my game’s key, which when clicked on caused Origin to launch.  Origin then prompted me for said key, after which point it began downloading the game.  Even after installing via Origin, I could not launch the game from Impulse.

What is the point of selling the game through a third-party vendor when it can’t be used by that vendor’s software?  I understand EA’s want to have Origin on the market, and have its own social network.  But it’s one thing to have Origin running in the background while the game runs, and entirely another to force someone to re-download the game even though it’s already been legitmately purchased through another storefront.  Another four hours later, I was finally able to play the game.

Thirteen gigabytes of wasted bandwidth.

At this point I was confronted with the Battlelog, perhaps one of the most confusing elements in the game so far.  Rather than having a server browser built into the game, which has been done for many years now, EA and/or DICE seem to think it was a good idea to make players manage their avatars and find servers from their internet browser, which then launches the game itself and loads everything up.  This means that switching servers requires quitting the game and re-launching it, with no shortcuts in the middle.  Meanwhile, the consoles have a fully functional server browser within the game, with almost all the options available to the PC players.

One argument I’ve heard is that this system allows for closer support for changes and patches.  Isn’t this what Origin is for?  Steam pushes updates to games automatically, so if Origin doesn’t do that, what’s the point?  EA didn’t want to play Valve’s game of providing easy-to-get DLC and updates, so if they’re not going to use Origin for that, is this just their digital iron maiden to put players in?  Seems like they’ve decided ActiBlizzard‘s douchebaggery made them look too good, and they had to start a pissing contest.

Another defense is that this allows for simplification and a more unified interface for the players.  Again…isn’t this what Origin is for?  Origin allows direct access to the EA store via what is basically…a browser window.  Couldn’t this be rolled into Origin, even in the exact state it’s in now?  Apparently not.  As the rule goes, it can’t be too easy or logical…somewhere it has to get convoluted, just to screw with people.

And what happens when this website is shut down?  Certainly they won’t keep it running indefinitely.  Someday the userbase will decline to a point at which EA decides it’s not worth running the Battlelog anymore, and then…no more play.  If all servers were centrally hosted by EA, this argument might be baseless, but they’re not.  They’re hosted by whoever feels like hosting one, to avoid the issues Activision ran into with peer hosting in Modern Warfare 2.  But this is pointless if one can’t find the servers to login to, and unless EA/DICE decides to patch the game to include a server browser that isn’t going to happen.  I’m beginning to become convinced the developers and publishers out there want to destroy the PC platform for no reason other than sadism, or perhaps boredom.